Source: FMWEC via Facebook.

In April, Dan Fry won the inaugural Football Manager World eSports Championship, fending off 63 competitors who travelled from across the world to compete at the Insomnia 62 festival in Birmingham. While the prestige alone would be enough for any Football Manager player, Fry also received £15,000 in prize money and the priceless opportunity to meet FM legend Cherno Samba.

These are the legendary game’s first real steps into the competitive market of eSports. Football Manager may not seem like the most natural fit for an eSport with its emphasis on methodical long-term planning, while logistical issues arrive when trying to create a spectacle from the matches. At the FMWEC, managers played one another on the same laptop, averting their eyes with integrity when their adversary paused to make tactical shifts.

The FIFA franchise has taken more steps than Football Manager in laying the foundations to be a leading eSport, but football-based eSports may struggle to take off because their real-life equivalent is so prominent. The world’s leading eSports thrive on offering fantastical competitive action that is unobtainable anywhere else, whereas footballing action is seemingly ubiquitous.

Fantastic Creatures

League of Legends is the most popular electronic sport in the world, pitting champions against one another in a world steeped in specific and detailed lore. Dota 2 is another eSport heavyweight that deploys fantastic creatures in battle, with over 12 million active players drawn to its magical charm. The popularity of Dota 2 comes in its complexity; watching an expert strut their stuff on Dota 2 is very different from attempting to play oneself.

These eSports have become sporting behemoths, attracting global audiences of millions. As with the biggest sporting tournaments, competitions come with worldwide streams, commentators and betting markets. There are eSports odds available for tournaments across the world, a level of global appeal that invites comparisons with football. Malta-based company Mr Green indicates that eSports betting attracts more than a quarter of a billion people already, a statistic that could double in size in the next five years. Like football players, gamers attract vast followings on social media and have their life scrutinised by fans.

What is usually a solitary game can become a communal experience. Source: Bidstack via Facebook.

Similarly, if Football Manager is to truly take off as an eSport, then it will be because of the strength of its gamers. There is a raft of delightfully critical minds who can perform tactical wonders on Football Manager and who share their expertise in extremely informative blogs. Watching these minds go head-to-head could provide a tactical battle that inspires just as Guardiola vs Klopp does in real life.

Watching these minds battle across a whole season could be a better way of tapping into the idiosyncrasies that make Football Manager so wonderful, as the computer game thrives on completely immersing the player in a virtual universe. Short tournaments make practical sense but deny Football Manager the chance to spread its wings. FM aficionados spend months of gameplay and decades of game-time taking a regen from the academy to the assistant manager position.

It is in those regens that Football Manager finds its moreish and endearing qualities that have made the series such a success. The FMWEC proves that the game can translate to a short-form eSport competition but, for Football Manager to hold its own as an eSport against the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2, it needs to play to its unique strengths.

The shorter format has its appeal; whole football tournaments can be condensed into a few hours, a refreshing concept as many real-life international competitions become increasingly bloated. Perhaps the continuation of shorter tournaments running alongside a longer season can provide the perfect balance of sporting drama and the chance to get to know both managers and players.